Socialism, Politics and Sectarianism

2013 Police campaign against sectarianism
2013 Police campaign against sectarianism

Reproduced for information purposes;
Does calling a socialist or a socialist party “Sectarian” have any political justification or is it just a form of abuse? The Socialist Party of Great Britain has long been written off by its opponents as “sectarian” as though making this accusation against us places our opponents on some sort of political high ground.

Submitted by jondwhite on November 7, 2018

What annoys opponents of the SPGB is the hostility clause of the Declaration of Principles published in 1904, long before the proliferation of parties describing themselves as “socialist” or “communist”. The hostility clause calls into question those political parties who call themselves “socialist” but have instead pursued social reform programmes, advocated direct action or had nationalisation and state capitalism as their goals.

The seventh clause unequivocally states:

That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain has never collaborated with anti-socialist political parties nor has the Party entertained taking part in shared political platforms and forums. When members of the SPGB attended, for example, the Govan Forum in 1931, it was in opposition to all the other groups and organisations taking part (

The Socialist Party of Great Britain has consistently reiterated that the host of political parties claiming to be “Marxist” or “socialist” do not serve the interest of the working class and must therefore be opposed. The struggle to establish socialism is not compatible with trying to administer capitalism, improve it with reforms or replace private capitalism with state capitalism.

In his satirical but deeply cynical pamphlet “As soon as this pub closes”, John Sullivan said of the SPGB’s hostility clause: “Religious sects achieve the same effect by shaving their heads or wearing distinctive clothes”

Mr Sullivan’s corrosive cynicism should be treated with the contempt it deserves. In John Le Carre’s, novel, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER, SPY, the central character, George Smiley says that his opponent has a fundamental weakness: as a fanatic he is always carrying a secret doubt. Similarly the corrosive cynicism of someone like John Sullivan hides a political secret deep beneath a sea of political negativity; a conservative desire to keep everything as it is. Scratch a cynic like Sullivan and the wound bleeds a deep blue conservatism.

Cynicism apart, why should a political party with a socialist objective and a socialist political programme want to unite, collaborate or compromise with other political parties who reject the means to establish socialism and the socialist object itself?

The answer from our opponents is a deafening silence.

Marx, The first International and Sects

In his paper The Joy of Sects, Al Richardson quoted several letters written by Marx which apparently distinguishes “sects” from the working class movement.

Marx gave three considered comments on sectarianism in letters he wrote regarding the problems associated with the First International.

In the first letter, written in 1868 Marx stated:

…the sect seeks its raison d'être and point of honour not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from the class movement

( Letter to Schweitzer, 13 October 1868, The First International and After, Penguin, 1974, p.155).

In the second letter, published in 1871 he said:

The International was founded in order to replace the Socialist or semi-Socialist sects by a real organisation of the working class for struggle. The original Rules and the Inaugural Address show this at a glance. On the other hand, the International could not have asserted itself if the course of history had not already smashed sectarianism. The development of Socialist sectarianism and that of the real labour movement always stand in indirect proportion to each other. So long as the sects are justified (historically), the working class is not yet ripe for an independent historical movement. As soon as it has attained this maturity all sects are essentially reactionary. For all that, what history exhibits everywhere was repeated in the history of the International. What is antiquated tries to reconstitute and assert itself within the newly acquired form

(Letter to Bolte, 23 November 1871, Marx and Engels, COLLECTED WORKS, Vol.44, p.252).

And in the third letter, published in 1872 he said:

The first phase in the struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie is marked by sectarianism. This is because the proletariat has not yet reached the stage of being sufficiently developed to act as a class. Individual thinkers provide a critique of social antagonisms, and put forward fantastic solutions which the mass of workers can only accept, pass on, and put into practice. By their very nature, the sects established by these initiators are abstentionist, strangers to all genuine action, to politics, to strikes, to coalitions, in brief, to any unified movement. The mass of the proletariat always remains unmoved by, if not hostile to, their propaganda.... All these sects, though at first they provide an impetus to the movement, become an obstacle to it once it has moved further forward; they then become reactionary

(Marx and Engels, "The Alleged Splits in the International", March 1872, The First International and After, pp.298-9).

These three letters (the last, a circular adopted by the General Council of the International showed that Marx did not use sectarianism as a term of abuse but related sects to what he called the “class movement” or the “real labour movement”.

In the first letter Marx writes of a “class movement”. For Marx this “class movement” was the First International. He states:

The International is a genuine and militant organization of the proletarian class of all countries, united in their common struggle against the capitalists and the landowners, against their class power organized in the state

Yet for any practical and political purpose surely this class movement must have a socialist objective or it is nothing? True, workers are forced into an economic struggle for better wages and working conditions, but the class struggle is also a political struggle towards the establishment of socialism.

So at what stage do workers reach full political development as a class? For socialists, it is when they have formed themselves into an active socialist majority within capitalism. Marx called it acting as a “class for itself”.

Of course, all socialist movements have to start somewhere and they will remain small and ineffectual while the working class support capitalism by voting for capitalist political parties, following leaders and supporting wars.

Nevertheless the size of the socialist party, although necessary for organisation and political engagement will always remain small while millions of workers still support capitalist politicians. What is vital, though, is that the membership is made-up of socialists, that there are no leaders and that there is agreement that the sole purpose of the party is to establish socialism by propagating socialist ideas in order to “make socialists” (William Morris).

In the second letter Marx states that the class movement is more important than the utopian sects were replaced by and incompatible with the class movement. Historically he recognised the role of Utopian sects, but argued these were now superseded by the class movement. Yet the problem of the International was its composition of people with differing political positions. The International collapsed because of the tensions within the organisation between anarchists, revolutionists and social reformists. Collaboration between groups with different means and different objectives do not last long.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain made a considered assessment of the First International and this is worth repeating:

According to the first rule that was adopted the association aimed at “the protection, advancement and complete emancipation of the working classes”. Here was the thin edge of reform. The rules gave the Central Council considerable power and this was the cause of friction later on; …It is significant to notice that nowhere in the Address, the Preamble or the Rules is there any reference to the common ownership of the means of production although there are constant references to the emancipation of labour. From the Communist Manifesto to the International Working Men’s Association was a long step in years, but it was partly a step backward; an attempt to get a large body together without placing a great deal of stress upon clarity of outlook. It was an attempt to unite workers on a programme that was broad enough to include those with a variety of fundamentally conflicting views in the hope that the discussions and the struggles of the organisation would eventually lead to the shedding of ideas that were anti-working class and thus clear the outlook of the worker

(The COMMUNIST MANIFESTO and the LAST ONE HUNDRED YEARS, Socialist Party of Great Britain 1948 p. 14 and 15).

In the third letter (written jointly with Engels and later published as a circular within the General Council of the International), Marx criticised those political organisations who abstained from “politics, strikes, coalitions..."

The first two points raised by Marx do not apply to the Socialist Party of Great Britain. The SPGB does take conscious political action as a political party. And the SPGB also acknowledges the usefulness for trade unions to withhold their labour and take strike action to gain higher wages and better working condition; although not in supporting reformist organisations like the Labour Party. Socialists have. Where circumstances permit, also been active trade unionists.

However Marx’s third point with respect to “coalitions” would have meant him writing off the SPGB as a sect because of our hostility towards political parties who do not share the same political programme and socialist objective.

In 1872 Marx could not see the harm coalitions and collaborations would create for the working class. A political coalition between socialists and non-socialists kills off the development of socialist consciousness. Look at the JOINT MANIFESTO OF ENGLISH SOCIALISTS published in 1893. Here is an example of a coalition between the Fabian Society, the Hammersmith Socialist Society and the Social Democratic Federation claiming that they all agreed on the need to abolish the wages system.

Our aim, one and all, is to obtain for the whole community complete ownership and control, the means of transport, the means of manufacture, the mines and the land. Thus we look to put an end forever to the wage-system, to sweep away all distinctions of class, and eventually to establish national and international communism on a sound basis


What happened?

Before the ink was dry, the rump of the group not only backtracked on the common aim of abolishing the wages system but pursued a list of “palliatives” and went on to form the Labour Party. So the JOINT MANIFESTO did not further the aim of socialism and the socialist revolution but, instead, most of the signatories went on to help establish a Liberal-backed trade union pressure group, the Labour Party, which later became indistinguishable from the Liberal and Tory Parties in its support for the interests of British capitalism; including the mass slaughter of the working class in two World Wars and numerous smaller ones. The Labour Party from the start relied on electoral pacts with the Liberal Party, and was happy to support the World war One Liberal government.

For a socialist party to form a coalition or collaborate with non-socialist parties just creates confusion and makes it harder for workers to understand the case for socialism. A worker has to make the choice of either voting for capitalism or working to establish socialism and to reject the former and support the latter. For a worker to make this decision requires the utmost clarity, not the confusion that would inevitably follow from collaborating with those who profess to support socialism but whose actions act as a barrier to the establishment of socialism. On this point Marx was wrong.

If the Socialist Party of Great Britain was to fold – and there is no right to political existence – then a similar political party would still be required to establish socialism. In other words, if the Socialist party did not exist then it would have to be invented.

However we have survived a cruel 20th century of war, social reformism and totalitarian governments describing themselves as “Marxist”, “Socialist” and “Communist”. We have in fact kept alive key Marxian ideas advocating and explaining the practical proposition of what socialism will be like and the political means necessary to establish socialism.

The tenacious fight to argue our case based on the OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES has ensured our survival for 25 years following our expulsion from the Clapham based socialist party.

Marx was wrong. A socialist party cannot collaborate with non-socialist parties nor have non-socialists as members. That is not sectarian but political common sense.

Sectarianism if it means anything at all when applied to working class politics grows out of the misguided belief that socialists are a privileged, distinct and separate group apart from the working class. That leads to the fallacious belief that socialist theory has to be injected into the working class movement from without because workers are not competent enough politically to think for themselves.

This political elitism has never been the position of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. The OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES of the SPGB came out of the political class struggle and was not imposed as a “general principle” on the class struggle from outside.

The SPGB stands and falls on its own OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES. While we acknowledge the vital contribution made by Marx and Engels to the socialist movement we do not agree with all they said particularly on the question of the relationship between socialists and those who claim to be socialists.

What is the difference between the Working Class movement and the Socialist movement?

In THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO Marx and Engels gave a historical sketch of the development of the working class movement. Historically, they traced out the working class from the beginning as an incoherent mass with no organisational capacity to a mature position of being able to establish by their own effort a revolutionary socialist political party.

The working class came into existence as a class after being driven off the land and forced into the new cities looking for employment and then struggling against the capitalist class over the extent and intensity of exploitation. As Marx and Engels noted: “With its birth begins its struggle with the bourgeoisie” (p. 67)

For Marx and Engels the working class passes through various stages of development:

* The class struggle is first carried on by individual labourers
* Then the struggle takes place by workers in a factory
* Then by operatives in one trade
* Then against machines rather than the owners of capital
* Then the working class is used by the bourgeoisie for its own political ends. Two examples being the Reform Bill of 1832 and the Repeal of the Corn Laws (1846) where workers were courted by employers to support their interests against the landed aristocracy.
* Then the formation by workers into trade unions despite the Combination Acts
* Periodically there are riots and set backs
* Consequently the working class developed a high level of class consciousness to organise itself into a political party “but is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves”)
(THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO loc cit pp 66-67)

This is the historical development of the working class movement informed by and acting upon the class struggle around concrete and material interests. In terms of time-span we are talking about just several centuries which is nothing when the time-span of human beings is considered.

Marx also made the comment that at the decisive hour of the class struggle:

Just as,… at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole

(loc cit p. 70).

Given the fact that by 1904, some 56 years after the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO was written, a group of workers produced the OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES demonstrated that “bourgeois ideologists”, might well be welcomed into the socialist party on equal terms but they did not hold the monopoly “of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole”. Workers had demonstrated that they could think and act politically in their own class interests.

Is there a difference between the working class movement and the socialist movement? One of the first attempts to answer this question was made in 1895 by Eleanor Marx in a little known article “THE WORKING CLASS MOVEMENT IN ENGLAND”.

Three points can be made about the article.

First, Eleanor Marx follows the brief sketch set out in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO of the development of the working class from an incoherent mass to an organised class. She also fleshed out this development by giving concrete examples like the first General strike of 1842 and such groups as the Luddites and the Chartists.

Second, she drew a distinction between the working class movement and the socialist movement seeing the former as developing class consciousness to become a socialist movement; this is what Marx and Engels had in mind when they ended their sketch of the development of the working class movement with the formation by workers of a political party. Once a political party is formed the working class movement becomes a socialist movement.

And, third, she believed a socialist movement was represented by the Social Democratic Federation and the Independent Labour Party:

So far no reference has been made to any purely Socialist movement during recent years. And it must be at once admitted that the Socialist movement, as such, lags sadly behind the Continental movement. The Social-Democratic Federation and the Independent Labour Party are, however, doing valuable work. The smallness of their successes at recent elections is no criterion of their own strength, and above all it is no criterion of the strength of the Socialist movement.

In the MANIFESTO of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, published in 1905, the SPGB repudiated Eleanor Marx’s claims that the SDF and ILP were doing “useful work” on behalf of the working class.

In this country there are many organisations claiming to fulfil the requirements of a workers’ party, There is, for instance, the Social-Democratic Federation, established over twenty years by Middle-class men. In most cases these men never had a real grip of the working class position

(p 5).

The I.L.P. is in reality run by a set of job-hunters, whose only apparent political principle is to catch votes on varying pretexts and by still more varying means. They openly repudiate the class struggle; the basis of socialism…The independent Labour Party is obviously not a party of the workers

(p. 7).

How would we describe the working class movement today some 168 years after the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO was published? A tragedy springs to mind. Consider what workers achieved between 1800 and 1904 to what they have achieved between 1904 and 2016, and to all intents and purpose the working class has remained as Marx put it a “class in itself” rather than a class “for itself”.

Most workers vote for leaders and parties who have no other interest than to administer capitalism. As for the socialist movement, it moves at a trickle beset by obstacles - the Labour Party and reformism, nationalism, religion, Leninism, war and so on. But socialists still carry on propagating socialist ideas and the urgent need for the establishment of socialism. We have no choice.

Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeois to-day, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class


What of the reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain after 25 years of struggle?

In being prevented from carrying out political propaganda in the full name of the Party as set out in Clause 8 of the DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES we had no option but to reconstitute the Socialist Party of Great Britain in June 1991. This so-called “split” was not of our making but it proved a blessing in disguise, as it freed us to work vigorously, and separately from the “get there quick” opportunists of the Clapham “Socialist” Party. We have grounds for pride in that, for a quarter of a century and against all the odds, we have continued to propagate the socialist ideas which flow from the principles while urging the working class to become socialists and work for:

The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.



5 years 8 months ago

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Submitted by Spikymike on November 8, 2018

But this just confirms that besides the tiny 'Socialist Studies' group (the authors of this text) being at odds with Marx on several levels, they really are sectarian towards the real Socialist Party of Great Britain still headquartered at Clapham High Street, as well as other genuine socialist/communist groups (rather than parties as such).